Heavy clouds gathered above them from mid-morning on, and it looked like they were in for quite a downpour after not too long. Sano didn’t mind in the slightest, since it was very hot and he could probably do with something like a bath in any case. Yahiko seemed less than entirely pleased, but offered no verbal complaint despite looking fairly regularly into the sky with an expression of faint apprehension. Hajime appeared neither to notice nor care.
“So I know it’s your job,” Sano was remarking as they walked, “but is there some particular reason you can give me why we even want Kenshin back on the throne?” It wasn’t that he doubted the purpose behind their quest — the same considerations and residual anger as before still applied — but he was curious.
Evidently both glad to discuss a topic related to their actual mission and dour at the topic itself, Hajime said slowly, “Kenshin is a good man. He may not be the strongest king in our history, for some of the reasons Seijuurou mentioned, but he’s unselfish and has a strong sense of rightness. Seijuurou was exaggerating his weakness–”
Sano made a rude noise. “No way; Seijuurou never exaggerates anything.”
With an echoing snort Hajime went on. “Where Kenshin has a tendency to be too lenient, he is reasonable enough to listen to good counsel, even if he sometimes complains like a child when he’s forced to see the logic of advice he doesn’t like.”
“You sure it’s safe to say shit like that about the king?” Sano laughed. “He’s only deposed, not dead!”
“It’s nothing I wouldn’t say to his face,” replied Hajime grimly, and Sano thought he recognized the source of at least some of the ‘good counsel’ the king could be brought to listen to. After a moment the knight continued in the same dark tone, “And in addition to all of that, he’s Akomera’s lawful ruler according to the established system. Even if Kenshin were much weaker, more selfish, less right-minded, a worse ruler all around… anyone willing to overthrow and imprison the rightful king is a criminal, and undoubtedly has criminal intentions that may be disastrous on a large scale. I don’t want someone like that on the throne.”
Pensively Sano nodded, seeing the point. If he had engaged any doubts, they would have been erased. “So why would Soujirou be willing to overthrow and imprison the rightful king?” he wondered next. “Sure, maybe his family’s all jealous and shit, but being king must be a hell of a lot of work, and you said he’s not a leader type…”
“When Soujirou was a child, during the Refugee Issue, he was kidnapped by Ayundomeshou and held for ransom–”
“All right,” Sano broke in, “what the hell is this ‘Refugee Issue’ you keep mentioning?”
“That’s the official name of the Bandit Wars.”
“Oh!” Just the sound of the words ‘Bandit Wars’ gave Sano an angry yet hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Yeah,” he said a little more quietly, “those damn things fucked up everyone’s lives.”
Hajime went on with his speculating. “It’s possible Soujirou holds the king responsible for what happened to him, since Kenshin is generally considered to have mismanaged those years. Maybe someone’s convinced Soujirou he could do better.”
“Did he get ransomed?” asked Sano. “Or what?”
“From what I’ve heard, he was rescued by devoted warriors.”
“Really?” Now Sano was thoroughly curious. “What house?”
“I don’t know. His family kept the entire thing quiet; I think they would have preferred nobody hear about it at all, but it’s difficult to keep something like that secret when the kidnapped child is a prince of Gontamei.”
At this moment Yahiko, who’d been silent for some time, put in unexpectedly, “He’s not the senior prince, though, right?”
Throwing the kid a quick, assessing glance, Hajime confirmed, “No.”
“Don’t look so surprised!” said Yahiko, in a dry tone that seemed like it should be coming from someone much older. “Unlike Sano, I do pay some attention to what’s going on in the country.”
“Hey!” Sano protested, though he really had very little defense against such an accusation.
“No,” Hajime said slowly, “I was just thinking that you’ll be even more useful to us if you’re aware of things like that.”
Yahiko’s tone had gone almost entirely flat as he responded quietly, “Sure. Useful.”
Presently the rain began. Since Sano had an unfashionably attached hood on his outer garment, he dug his own leather one out for Yahiko’s use. The kid looked even more odd than before wearing the oversized hood; he gave the impression of having been magically shrunken so that none of his clothing fit. But it kept the rain off his head.
As nobody was saying anything now, and as it always sounded better in the rain in any case, Sano launched into a bawdy song about a beautiful woman and all the things the narrator of the lyric would like to have her do. It wasn’t one of his favorites, particularly — though the fact that it followed the melody of an old children’s song with much more innocent words thoroughly amused him — it was just the first thing that happened to come to mind at the moment.
He’d half expected Hajime to order him to shut up, but instead the knight merely looked at him with a very skeptical expression and said absolutely nothing. Eventually, though, after the second refrain, Sano broke off of his own accord.
“I can see why you’d want to stop there,” Hajime remarked.
“Why?” Sano wondered, knowing he was walking into an insult by asking but nonetheless curious.
“I imagine the next verse would be rather embarrassing for you,” said Hajime easily.
“I… don’t remember the next verse,” Sano confessed. This was the reason he’d ceased singing.
Hajime reminded him, “Something about her beautiful voice making you wish she would deafen you.”
“Oh, yeah,” Sano laughed. “I’da thought a song like that was way below a royal knight’s dignity.”
“That’s because you haven’t known many royal knights.”
Sano laughed again, but stopped abruptly as the meaning of Hajime’s insult finally struck him. “Wait, so you’re saying I’m so bad at singing that I should be embarrassed to sing anything about someone with a beautiful voice?”
Hajime just smirked, probably at how long it had taken Sano to realize this was what he’d meant.
“Don’t listen to him,” Yahiko broke in. “You weren’t half bad.”
“Hah!” said Sano triumphantly, turning toward his new defender. “Thanks, kid!” After a moment’s thought, though, he added in some unease, “I hope you didn’t understand most of that shit in the song, though.”
Yahiko didn’t look at him as he answered, “I wasn’t actually listening.” Sano thought he mumbled something else, possibly expanding upon this, but Hajime’s sardonic chuckle drowned it out.
“What was that?” Sano asked, ignoring the knight. When Yahiko just shook his head, Sano protested, “You can’t just claim I don’t sing too bad and then say you weren’t listening!”
In an abrupt volte-face of demeanor such as Sano had seen in him a few times before, Yahiko finally looked up, suddenly and defiantly, and said clearly, “I wasn’t listening. Yumi said you’re not half-bad, but she thinks it’s funny to hear a subujinsh’wai singing that kind of thing about a woman.”
Dead silence fell (except for their footsteps and the falling rain and the various noises of the forest, of course), while Sano tried to overcome his unpleasant surprise at these words. It wasn’t that Yahiko had him pegged as someone that only liked men — it didn’t take divine inspiration to figure that out — but, rather, that he’d brought up one of those stupid ladies in the middle of a conversation that hadn’t previously been annoying Sano (much). And it wasn’t that Sano couldn’t stand to hear them mentioned at all; it was that he couldn’t stand to hear them mentioned so familiarly by someone he was coming to consider a friend.
And the idea of the Yumi inside the kid’s head having something to say about either his singing abilities or his romantic inclinations was one he was not even going to think about.
Abruptly he turned to Hajime and changed the subject. “You know what I don’t get? Why the king just gave up like that. How many guys did Soujirou have with him, eight? You could take eight guys at once, couldn’t you?”
Hajime appeared amused by Sano’s behavior and not averse to answering. “Those particular eight, probably. Those eight plus Soujirou… probably not.”
This had been the first topic off the top of Sano’s head, but he found himself genuinely interested. “But wasn’t there anything in the room the king could have used as a weapon?” he wondered. “Or knocked one of the guys down and taken his? Surely both of you together would have been all right?”
What Sano could see of Hajime’s downturned face under its hood looked pensive and displeased. “The truth is, I have no idea what the king was thinking. As Seijuurou said, it made my presence entirely pointless for Kenshin to surrender like that. He probably could have escaped the way I did…”
“Just another thing to ask him, I guess,” Sano said thoughtfully. Then, before he remembered he didn’t want to think about Yahiko and his strange condition, he added, “Too bad you didn’t have Yahiko with you; he could have killed ’em all for you!”
Yahiko seemed just as unhappy to have been dragged into this. “I don’t kill people,” he said in a surly tone.
“Well,” Sano said, shrugging and making an effort at speaking casually, “you’d have been useful somehow.”
They didn’t much feel like stopping and standing still in the rain — let alone sitting down — and they were low on food anyway, so they walked through midday and into the afternoon rather than eating lunch somewhere. Hajime elaborated on what he knew of Soujirou’s skills with a sword, which led to a discussion of swordsmanship in general, which led to some tales of Sano’s exploits in this area, which failed utterly to impress Hajime, which led to an argument. It also, however, took them all the way to the sign-marked crossroad Sano had been counting down steps to since they’d started that day.
“Hey.” Sano paused when they came within sight of the sign, and pointed. “Egato’s getting pretty close here… is one of us gonna go buy some more food?”
“Yes,” Hajime confirmed, “you are.”
Sano was faintly surprised. “Me? Why me?”
“Because you’re the less valuable fugitive,” answered Hajime simply.
With a sigh and accompanying gesture of exasperation, Sano echoed, “‘…less valuable…’ Ladies, you are such an asshole.”
“Use your brain, if you have one,” said Hajime impatiently. “Which of us is more likely to promote the good of the nation at this point?”
Stung, Sano retorted, “Oh, like any of you nobles in the capital could live without us farmers.”
“Aside from the fact that I said ‘at this point,’ I have a hard time believing you contribute all that much.”
Now Sano’s fists were clenched. “What would you know about that? I bet you don’t work ten hours a day in the hot sun!”
Hajime’s eyes narrowed as he replied pointedly, “Nor do I sell my body to some selfish warrior.”
“Leave me alone about that already!” Sano protested. A thought struck him as he was saying this, and he added quickly, trying his best to mimic Hajime’s significant narrowing of eyes, “Besides, I thought that was a pretty good description of being a royal knight.”
Hajime snorted. “No, nothing about you is similar to us.”
“Why don’t you fight me and prove it?” Sano gripped the hilt of his sword.
“You can barely use that weapon,” said Hajime disdainfully.
“Oh, yeah? Who says?”
“That old bastard,” Sano grumbled, then quickly returned to the topic at hand. “I think you’re just making excuses not to fight me.”
“I don’t need to make excuses. I don’t need to fight you. Any royal knight could kill you in thirty seconds.”
“Good to hear they have nothing better to do.”
Hajime huffed out an annoyed breath. “Oh, make up your mind, idiot. Either I have to make excuses not to fight you, or fighting you would be a waste of time; you can’t have it both ways.”
“I’ll go,” said Yahiko suddenly.
Sano looked down at him in some surprise. He’d been trying not to think much about the kid since earlier, and apparently it had worked. It took him a moment even to assimilate what Yahiko had proposed, but once he had he asked, “But didn’t they chase you halfway to Eloma last time you were here?”
“I’ll just avoid the shrine,” Yahiko said briefly, then held up an expectant hand. “Money?”
Hajime, who looked amused and faintly impressed, pulled out a few larger coins and dropped them into Yahiko’s hand before Sano could even start to get his backpack off. Sano was relieved to learn that the money Seijuurou had provided wouldn’t be their only source of funding on this venture — not least because, though the rain was beginning to let up a bit, he hadn’t been eager to get into his backpack in the wet — but he was still annoyed at Hajime.
“Hey, don’t just look like that solves all our problems,” he said as Yahiko began to walk away toward the town they could barely see at the bottom of a hill along the road that here joined theirs. “Kid could get in real trouble down there!”
“I’m afraid that, whatever you may think about the situation, my facial expression is outside your jurisdiction,” Hajime replied coolly.
Sano scowled. “And don’t think using big words will confuse me or something either, asshole.”
“Certainly not. I could do it just as well with small words.”
“What the fuck do you mean by that?”
“My point exactly.”
Sano stalked over to the side of the road, tossed his backpack down, heedless of how wet was the grass, and seated himself on a rock facing away from Hajime, arms crossed. He was determined not to talk to the knight again until Yahiko returned.
Divine lady Yumi represents, among other things, beauty and externality, which is why her symbol is a mirror. Here’s the full-color version as well:
I think this is my favorite of the divine lady plates. I remember that, as I was drawing this one, my tablet completely died. So I saved what I had at that point as a preview until I could get a new tablet. Ju can see the preview here; it’s kindof interesting: